November 19, 2021
Earlier this month, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it will provide $20 million in pandemic assistance to cover certification, education, and other expenses for agricultural producers who are certified organic or transitioning to organic. The funding, which provides additional cost-share assistance to that already provided through the National Organic Certification Cost-Share (NOCCSP) program, will be administered through the agency’s new Organic and Transitional Education and Certification Program (OTECP).
Funding will help producers recoup a portion of their expenses for fiscal years 2020, 2021, and 2022. The deadline to apply is January 7, 2022, through a local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office. One-on-one support is available by calling 877-508-8364.
It’s been a hard year for farmers, especially organic and those transitioning to organic. Lost markets, supply chain challenges, and increased costs and labor as a result of the ongoing pandemic placed additional burdens on producers, particularly small and mid-sized producers. For organic producers, additional costs of obtaining and maintaining organic certification can cause additional hardships. That is why programs like the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program (NOCCSP), which provide reimbursement for certification costs for organic farmers, have been especially critical during this time.
The 2018 Farm Bill provided new mandatory funding for the organic certification cost-share program, but unfortunately, due to accounting errors, USDA provided Congress inaccurate reports of carryover balances. This resulted in a funding shortfall for the program, and in August 2020 USDA reduced the maximum 75 percent reimbursement rate or $750 for the program to a maximum reimbursement rate of 50 percent or $500. This meant that organic farmers, already dealing with the strain of the pandemic and counting on the reimbursement for their certification costs, were left with a reduced payment.
The outcry from organic stakeholders, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), prompted USDA to make new funding available for the program, and in June 2021, the agency announced it would provide up to $20 million in additional organic certification cost-share assistance as part of the USDA Pandemic Assistance for Producers initiative.
With the new funding, USDA has expanded the eligibility of the cost-share program to now include transitioning producers and certain expenses incurred during the transition process. The funding is being made available through USDA’s new Organic and Transitional Education and Certification Program (OTECP). This program will provide additional certification cost-share assistance for producers reimbursed by NOCCSP with certification cost-share limits up to 25 percent or $250 for each eligible expense. Note, the 2021 application period for NOCCSP closed on November 1, 2021. For certified producers, eligible expenses include application fees, inspection fees, including travel costs, certification costs, state program fees, and others.
Under OTECP, transitioning producers are now eligible for up to 75 percent of expenses or up to $750 for 2020, 2021, and 2022. These include fees for pre-certification inspection and organic system plan development. New eligible expenses for both certified and transitioning producers include soil testing (up to $100) for micronutrient deficiency as required under the National Organic Program (NOP) and educational event registration fees (up to $200 per year) for organic education programming. Reimbursement payments plus any additional cost-share assistance cannot exceed the total amount of eligible expenses. Currently, organic and transitioning producers can apply for the following scopes: crops, livestock, wild crops, handling expenses. If a producer is certified to more than one scope, they can apply for certification cost-share for each scope. Payments will be issued after the end of the application period for each fiscal year. OTECP payments will be prorated if calculated payments exceed the amount of available funding.
More information, including the necessary forms needed to apply, is available here: https://www.farmers.gov/pandemic-assistance/otecp
The application period for the program year 2022 will be announced at a later date.
The 2017 Census of Agriculture reported robust growth in organic production over the last five years, including a 39 percent increase in certified organic farm operations in the US, as well as an increase in organic sales. Despite this, support for organic producers continues to lag. While NOCCSP helps producers offset some of the costs of certification, the maximum reimbursement payment of up to $750 is hardly enough to cover the total costs of certification which can be thousands of dollars annually for many farmers.
Stakeholders have long advocated for raising the maximum payment rate but with the agency seemingly unable to adequately keep track of its accounting, the program (and by extension, the agency) does not inspire confidence among organic producers. This is in addition to burdensome paperwork and a lack of education among FSA field staff on organic agriculture. To alleviate the problems plaguing the program and to better serve organic producers, it is clear broader reform is needed to provide technical and financial support for organic and transitioning farmers.